The stakes couldn't be any higher. When the seventh seeded Rangers visit Western New York tonight against the eighth Sabres, two points separate the teams with six games remaining. The Rangers enter with 87 points, winners of eight of 10- bringing a 23-14-1 road record that ranks only behind the Canucks, Flyers, Bruins and Red Wings. The Sabres have 85- their lead over ninth Carolina down to three due to a 4-3 loss in Toronto combined with the Canes' 3-2 shootout triumph in D.C.
Speaking of those Canes, they'll be in Montreal playing at the same time. You can bet there will be some scoreboard watching. Even with the emphasis on what's in front of each, some peeking at the festivities north of the border. It should make for quite a couple of hours if you're a fan of any of these clubs jockeying for playoff position as we count down to the final frantic week.
For Buffalo, they must have short memories after losing to bitter nemesis Toronto in a very exciting game that saw them combine for seven goals. The Sabres fell behind by two twice before rallying to tie it on lightning strikes from Jason Pominville and Rob Niedermayer 30 seconds apart in the third to stun the Leafs. But Toronto leading scorer Mikhail Grabovski shelved his 28th just past Ryan Miller to keep the Leafs alive in the race. With 80 points and only five left, they'll need to keep winning and get help.
It was a blown opportunity for the Sabres to push ahead of the idle Blueshirts due to the shootout tiebreak that puts more of an emphasis on regulation/overtime wins. Instead, Lindy Ruff's club made things more complicated for themselves with Carolina very much in play with a lot depending on what happens a few hours from now.
“I had a chance to set the tone on my end and didn't do it, and it just kind of went from there," lamented losing goalie Miller who wasn't pleased with a goal he allowed to Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf from the blueline that got the ACC jumping. Figure the rating Vezina winner to be locked in after permitting four on 35 shots while rookie James Reimer made some clutch stops late for his 18th victory. It's probably too late for the 23 year-old former '06 fourth round pick to put his name into a packed Calder race that includes headliners Jeff Skinner, Logan Couture, Corey Crawford along with the Islanders' Michael Grabner.
Whenever the Rangers and Sabres meet, the goalie battle is always the main attraction, pitting Henrik Lundqvist against Miller. Though Miller's having a down season, he's fully capable of shutting down the opposition on any night. There's plenty of incentive against his sizzling counterpart who enters 8-1-1 with a 1.67 GAA, .936 save percentage and three of his league-high 11 shutouts coming over the past 10 starts, boosting his Vezina candidacy against stiff competition featuring Tim Thomas (9th SHO in 3-0 win over Hawks), Carey Price (27 saves for 35th W in 3-1 win over Thrashers) and Pekka Rinne. It will be King Henrik's 21st consecutive start.
UPDATE: In a stunner, the Sabres are expected to start Jhonas Enroth. The 22 year-old Swede doesn't have much experience with nine career starts. Eight have come this year with the '06 second round pick 5-2-1 with a 2.77 GAA and .906 save percentage. Respectable numbers but he hasn't started since 3/13, winning a wild 6-4 conventional shootout over Ottawa with 34 saves.The timing seems iffy. Maybe Ruff's trying to send a message to his team that last night was unacceptable. It should be noted that historically, the Rangers don't fare well against unknowns. So, if in fact Enroth is in, who knows.
Both teams know they can't rely on help from the Habs- a team they're still trying to catch. Montreal ended a near record futility of being blanked three straight times by pulling out a 3-1 home win over Atlanta, all but ending the Thrashers' season. Montreal has 89 points but owns the new tiebreak over the Rangers and Sabres. This is the final meeting between the state rivals with the Rangers holding a 2-1 edge. The last time they played at HSBC was the infamous season opener featuring Derek Stepan's hat trick debut, highlighting a 6-3 win. The other two games at MSG both were decided by identical 3-2 margins with the Blueshirts taking the second meeting on an Artem Anisimov OT winner while Buffalo returned the favor in regulation with Jochen Hecht's tally holding up.
“There’s enough there. Doesn’t matter what team,” Tortorella told Jim Cerny on a nyranger.com feature. “I know everybody is concerned about the standings, but we can only worry about us.”
Figure it to be tight.